FOR PAUL SAHRE, GRAPHIC DESIGN WAS A CALLING, NOT A CHOICE. HERE HE SHARES HIS VIEWS ON PUTTING YOURSELF INTO YOUR WORK, THE RENAISSANCE OF BOOK COVER DESIGN, AND POINTLESS PROJECTS WORTH DOING ANYWAY…
The renowned graphic designer shares how he forged his career as a sole practitioner, and the struggles he had to overcome along the way
Design is not a job for Paul Sahre; it’s an identity. He’s gained respect in the industry for forging a creative path driven largely by passion, rather than power or finances, and is best known for his innovative and unexpected book covers, his graphic work for the New York Times, and that time he created – and blew up – a life-sized cardboard monster truck hearse (more on that later).
Today, Sahre’s a successful sole practitioner, but the journey hasn’t always been smooth. Here, he speaks about the highs and lows of working alone, the struggle between money and ethics, and why the digital shift has been a blessing in disguise for book cover design.
Why did you get into graphic design in the first place?
I started my career thinking I was going to change the world. It’s not turned out that way. There are many other things you can do with your life if that’s your main motivation. So… why be a graphic designer? It gives me a sense of purpose and meaning. It’s a calling – it’s what you do and who you are. And it’s survival. It’s like breathing. It keeps you alive. There are times when we have control over it and are aware of our breathing, and there are times where it’s a reflex. Is it even a choice?
You’ve written a memoir of your experiences in the design world: Two-Dimensional Man. What prompted you to do this?
To answer your question it might take another 300 pages. The short answer is I think I’m trying to understand why I’m a graphic designer. I also feel like graphic design is misunderstood – by non-designers, but also by many designers. I don’t see it as a job. It’s a discipline. A calling. It’s who I am. It’s not something I can turn off at 6pm every day. I’m a designer when I’m designing, but I’m also a designer while I watch a movie or walk down the street or when I’m shooting free throws or eating breakfast.
Do you turn down jobs because they don’t fit with this ideology?
Oh sure. As designers we are responsible for the work we do and who we do it for. One thing I don’t want to participate in, another designer might, and that’s totally fine. You have to follow your own moral code. Sometimes that gets lost. It’s not just a mechanical, problemsolving thing and I’m a robot and whatever is put in front of me I figure out and design. Talk about making it easy to be replaced!
You could probably make a lot more money than I do if you took on projects for a different reason, but we all have to sleep at night. And I learned that the hard way in my first job. This firm I worked for did a lot of military, industrial complex stuff, and it really freaked me out. It was a soul-searching thing. There was very much a sense of, “I have to do this, it’s my job” and I should be able to just put that aside. But I’ve since learned that’s just crazy. You can’t just do that.
How does being so immersed in design affect the rest of your life?
I do think there’s a fundamental disconnect in design. It’s for the most part an altruistic activity –
“I’M A DESIGNER WHEN I’M DESIGNING, BUT I’M ALSO A DESIGNER WHILE I WATCH A MOVIE OR TAKE A WALK”
you typically respond to situations that are not of your making – and at the same time you have to bring yourself into the process for it to be any good. And to me, that dichotomy is fascinating. You wouldn’t think these two things have anything to do with each other, but with really good design work, you see a person in there.
You’re well known for your book covers. What is it about this field that attracts you?
It’s a singular design challenge: a graphic doorway to an experience someone has. But it’s interesting. Whenever a book doesn’t sell, it’s the book cover’s fault. When it does, it’s not because of the book cover.
I don’t know. People say print is dead, right? The digital shift has created more opportunities for me as a book cover designer. We think about them more as permanent objects now; the publishers are more open to something interesting with a cover design. For me, it’s been nothing but good… at least until print does actually die.
What’s your approach to figuring out what should go on a book cover? It must be difficult to distil so much into such a small area, and your designs are often very pared-back.
It really depends on the book. There are times when it’s a process of distilling, other times it makes sense to do the complete opposite. I’ve described my approach as an ‘any visual means necessary’ way of working. A cover I design should feel right for a particular book and at the same time, should feel right for me. Covers that I’ve designed can look quite different, but they still feel like they come from me. I like to follow an idea where it leads.
Can you give us an example?
My latest cover for Chuck Klosterman. It’s designed to relate to other books I’ve designed for Chuck, but this one is almost nothing: centered Helvetica on a white background. But everything is upside down. So it’s idea-driven, which is perfect for this book. It’s a book about questioning everything.
What are the biggest advantages of being a sole practitioner?
Getting back to this being a calling, I’ve found it’s the only way I can work where I still feel that way about it. You have much more ability to navigate and say yes or no to things. And put yourself in a position where you can do work that you really, really care about.
Keeping it small, you get to do much more hands-on work. Certainly when you get to my age (over 50), a lot of my peers have naturally progressed into more of a director or management role, where you’re more concerned with big ideas than actually making things. I like making stuff. Even having a staff of four or five people I’ve found takes me away from actually designing in a way that I just don’t like.
… and what are the biggest disadvantages?
Money. It complicates things. Some people do great work with big budgets. I never was able to figure that out.
It’s not really the case any more, but there have been times where I’ve
“BOOK COVERS ARE A SINGULAR DESIGN CHALLENGE: A GRAPHIC DOORWAY TO AN EXPERIENCE SOMEONE HAS”
squeaked by financially at times. It’s always self-inflicted though, because I also do a lot of self-initiated work, where I don’t have a client. Or like the monster truck project – there was a client, but that protect didn’t bring in any money for six months. Well, all the expenses were paid for, but I had to buckle down and make some money after that just to keep things going. But I really gravitate towards those projects.
Also, you have to do everything. I started my career working on projects and I always resented someone because I thought they had fucked something up. But when all those people are gone, it’s just you – you can only blame yourself. And you have to take out the garbage. You have to do your taxes. Keep yourself organised…
You mentioned a project there where you created a full-sized paper monster truck hearse for the band They Might Be Giants, when you’d only been commissioned to create an album cover (www.paulsahre. com/when-will-you-die). How do you feel about that project, looking back on it now?
Thinking about that project always makes me smile. Partly because it was awesome, partly because it was pointless and partly because it’s over. It took over my life for six months. That thing had to die.
Some of your family is in the design world too, is that right?
I’m married to a graphic designer [Pentagram partner Emily Oberman]! It enhances it. My fatherin-law was a graphic designer and my dad was an aerospace engineer, and I loved him dearly but we didn’t have that connection that I had with my father-in-law. When something’s that intertwined in your life…
I’m still trying to get my mom to understand what the hell I do. It drives me crazy. I wrote this book, I sent it to her, and she didn’t say anything about it. Nothing. And it’s not like she’s not a caring person and she didn’t read it. She did. It’s weird.
A drawing appeared on my mom’s wall that I did when I was a teenager. It had been in the possession of my younger brother who died. This drawing became a weird talisman of how little your mom understands you. It was the only reaction I got from the book being published.
I sent a copy of the book to my mom and didn’t hear anything. Then maybe three or four months later I went up to visit and she’s taken the
“THE THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS PROJECT TOOK OVER MY LIFE FOR SIX MONTHS. THAT THING HAD TO DIE”
drawing down. Why? Frankly, it’s not something I feel like getting into with her. It’s better for me (and her) that it’s not on the wall.
Do you have any advice for designers who want to forge a career as a sole practitioner, but don’t have a reputation yet or big portfolios?
I had to get fired from my last job, because it’s scary not having that steady pay cheque. It also depends on where you are. This isn’t an answer, but in school I took a ‘business of graphic design’ class and I realised, sigh, that there was so much emphasis on presenting your work, and what you wear. I was like, “Forget this, I’m gonna work as hard as I can to be the best designer I possibly can and then whatever happens, happens.”
That’s not advice, but I know for me the work has always begot more work. Having some business acumen can be really helpful, finding the right partner can be really helpful, finding the right allies or meeting the right people, always staying open to possibilities, and really at the beginning being sort of aggressive and getting out and letting people see you in some shape or form is super important. I don’t know if that’s a road map – it’s all pretty obvious stuff. Most important: make, make, make.
Do you and Emily come at the concept of creative control from different directions? She’s obviously part of a team at Pentagram…
Yes, very much so. Our approaches and viewpoints can be very different, but we are the same when you really get down to it. Emily is a designer through and through. Her parents designed the national flag of Anguila. They were there on the island in the 60s and they were the only graphic designers there! Super cool. She’s a designer in the same way – it’s her life, and it’s not just a job.
Would you ever consider working together?
We don’t work together. I know some couples can do it and still be happy. That said, I show her everything I do. She’s a sounding board for me and often I don’t take her advice or do the opposite, but it’s invaluable. We talk about work often at home. She’s doing the new opening for SNL and she’s sending me messages saying, “What do you think about these typefaces?” We do that. It’s nice.
“I’M STILL TRYING TO GET MY MOM TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THE HELL I DO. IT DRIVES ME CRAZY”
This page: published in 2018, Two-Dimensional Man examines Paul Sahre’s experiences over 30 years in design.
This page: Sahre used Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s likeness for the new English translation of 1949 novel The Besieged City. Opposite (top): Sahre has designed almost all of Chuck Klosterman’s book covers. Opposite (middle): this illustration accompanied the NYT review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s anticarnivore tome Eating Animals. Opposite (bottom): an illustration for a New Yorker article about the controversies around former Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt.
Above: O.O.P.S.’s work for They Might Be Giants.
Below: Sahre’s ethos for book cover design is “any visual means necessary”.
video for When Will You Die by They Might Be Giants also featured a monster-sized ghetto blaster.